The Ultimate Golf Club: Those Who've Played With Tiger

Twelve astronauts have walked the moon. The number of CEOs who have walked a golf course with Tiger Woods isn't much higher. For all his billions and passion for the game, Warren Buffett has played but one hole with Woods, a hole that Woods won playing each stroke from his knees. The day Woods and former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy met they wound up driving balls from McNealy's backyard into the Portola Valley of Northern California. Woods twice hit the roof of a neighbor's house he was aiming at from more than 300 yards, which sent them running inside to hide, giggling like children, McNealy says.

CEOs live in an exclusive world, but for all their resources and connections, the Tiger Woods Club is about as select as it gets. As Woods, 32, begins his 13th professional season this week at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, no new CEO members were able to wriggle an induction into the rare air of the Tiger Club at Wednesday's pro-am.

Woods, arguably one of the most recognized people on Earth, attracts throngs of spectators and autograph seekers. Playing with him is like playing with a rock star, says Yum Brands CEO David Novak. At the AT&T National near Washington, D.C., last summer, Woods won applause when he stepped out from the portable toilet. That's a kind of fervor you don't get stepping from the executive washroom.

As is his custom, Woods declined comment through his agent. The Professional Golf Association has no record of those who have played with him in pro-ams and fundraisers, but USA TODAY confirmed 12 CEOs and former CEOs who have had the honor, including Jerry Yang of Yahoo, Mayo Shattuck of Constellation Energy and Seth Waugh, CEO of Deutsche Bank America Three of the other nine, including Novak, played nine holes with Woods in the winning foursome of the pro-am round of the Skins Game in 2003.

What best demonstrates the exclusivity of the Tiger Club are the CEOs who are not in it:

Avid player Donald Trump, owner of courses, returned calls from Daily News, Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY reporters on his cellphone in 2006 and said he was playing with Woods in the pro-am of the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston. While it's true that Trump and Woods played in the same tournament, Woods played with Waugh and billionaire financier Henry Kravis, says Deutsche Bank spokesman Joshua Milne. Woods began early in the morning. Minutes after his group finished, Trump began his round with pro Brad Faxon. Trump's office did not return more recent calls asking for clarification.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, perhaps the best-known CEO golfer with a 3 handicap in his prime, has never played with Woods. "Their paths just never crossed," says Welch's assistant Rosanne Badowski.

News reports say Bill Gates was a guest at Woods' 2004 wedding to Swedish model Elin Nordegren, but there is no record of a Gates-Woods golf outing. Neither Microsoft nor the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would confirm it one way or the other.

Not every CEO has an interest in the game. But Golf Digest publishes a list of the top CEO golfers, and among the most accomplished, with handicaps of 5 or less, are these who say they have never played with Woods: Intuit's Steve Bennett, Stanley Works' John Lundgren, MGIC Investment's Curt Culver, Crosstex Energy's Barry Davis and Nationwide's Jerry Jurgensen.

Paying to Play

Of course, Woods has played with Phil Knight, CEO of his megasponsor, Nike. But missing from the Tiger Club are CEOs of companies with strong golf connections, including ConAgra, MasterCard, Travelers, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Verizon and Wyndham Worldwide, although Wyndham CEO Stephen Holmes gladly recounts walking with Woods at the Presidents Cup tournament in Montreal in September. "Tiger's a legend, not only in the golf community, but as a marketing phenomenon," Holmes says. "If I was invited to play a round with him? I don't know how anyone could say no."

"I've heard stories of people paying $1 million to play with him," says CEO Dan Warmenhoven, one of three Network Appliance executives and a doctor who together paid $660,000 at a charity auction to play in private with Woods in Orlando. The 2001 round was in a gated community at Woods' home in Florida. Plus, the caddy was Warren Buffett.

Buffett says Woods challenged him at the 18th hole for $5, no strokes, which caused Buffett to practically faint, partly because he considers $5 serious money. Buffett says he made good on the $5 but requested 50 cents for the caddy's 10% cut.

Warmenhoven's recollection is different. He says after Buffett rode around in the cart cracking jokes for 17 holes, Buffett challenged Woods on the 18th. Borrowing a club, Buffett hit a nice drive more than 200 yards uphill. Woods moved to the back tees, got on his knees and hit the ball 240 yards, 20 yards beyond Buffett's ball.

Buffett's second shot sliced into the lake. Warmenhoven says Buffett told Woods he wanted a mulligan, golf slang for a do-over. Woods scoffed at the request, hit a 3-wood from his knees that went 210 yards uphill and just off the green. The pitch from his knees put him 5 feet from the hole, from where he putted in from his knees for a par.

Later, Warmenhoven says he heard Buffett on his cellphone telling someone: "Tiger beat me on the 18th, but I took him to his knees." While accurate, the implication was that the two played even through 17 holes, Warmenhoven says.

Buffett says he made a funny video that day giving golf instructions to Woods. But he doesn't remember placing such a call. He agrees that he hit the ball into the lake but denies requesting a mulligan. Woods had trouble putting from his knees and did not par the hole with a 4, scoring either a 5 or a 6, Buffett says.

"Tiger wrote me a letter, saying next time he would play on his knees and blindfolded," Buffett says. "I'm not sure if that would even the match."

McNealy, one of the best golfers to have ever been a CEO, met Woods through McNealy's sister-in-law Laura Ingemanson, a friend of Woods' at Stanford University. On Labor Day weekend in 2000, she and Woods showed up unexpectedly at his door.

When McNealy told Woods that he sometimes tried to hit a distant rooftop from his backyard but had never succeeded, Woods wanted a try. Without a practice swing, he hit a drive into the late afternoon dusk. No one could see the ball, but Woods told them that it would hit about 10 yards right.

Everyone got quiet when he hit his second ball. "Kaboom! It went right off the roof," McNealy says. "He dropped the club, and we ran into my game room laughing."

Soon, Woods was asking for a third swing, and they went back outside. "Kaboom!" McNealy says. "It was an impossible distance with someone else's driver in running shoes and no practice swings. It was easily the two most amazing golf swings I've seen."

Memorable Rounds

McNealy soon officially joined the Tiger Club when he played a real round with Woods and Clint Eastwood at the pro-am of the January 2001 Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii. "We had a big crowd. Not because of me," McNealy says.

Woods made the round more memorable when he let McNealy's 5-year-old son, Maverick, play the 18th hole.

All CEOs describe Woods as personable, unlike the robotic athlete seen on TV, and say he will offer tips when asked.

At the 2005 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., Alliant Techsystems CEO Dan Murphy had a 10-foot putt on the 17th green that was directly behind an 8-foot putt by Woods. Murphy asked for advice, and Woods told him to aim for a dark blade of grass next to the hole. Murphy's putt lipped out.

He says Woods' reaction was to tell him that Murphy now knew how Woods felt when he got bad advice.

Advice may be cheap, but securing a round with Woods can be expensive. Tiger Club members can usually be traced through contributions, which go to the Tiger Woods Foundation or charities sponsored by the tournament hosts.

Influence and connections work, too. Yum Brands' Novak, grocery giant Supervalu CEO Jeff Noddle and Robert Lawless, who retired Jan. 1 as CEO of the giant McCormick seasoning company, didn't pay anything to play with Woods at the pro-am before the Skins Game. But ConAgra Foods sponsored the Skins Game that year. Supervalu, Yum and McCormick happen to be good customers of ConAgra. .

Just about anyone willing to write a check can play in a golf pro-am. It cost $2,200 to $2,700 to play this week with a pro in San Diego, but that falls way short of a round with Woods. It buys only a ticket into a lottery. As the donors' names are drawn, they choose from the remaining pros. However, Woods and the tournament's defending champion are almost always withheld from the lottery. Those golfing partners are handpicked by tournament sponsors. Buick, which sponsors three tournaments, uses its Woods' spots to reward top dealers and for an auction to raise money for charity, says Mark LaNeve, vice president North America for General Motors.

While bidding in such auctions is the clearest path to the Tiger Club, it is also the most expensive. The $660,000 paid by the three Network Appliance executives and a doctor broke the record of $425,000.

Bargains can be had. In 2006, Mark Merhab, chairman of the Angels Baseball Foundation, gave his wife, Donna, a night without the kids at a luxury hotel as a Mother's Day present. She had so much time on her hands at the hotel that she found an eBay auction for a round with Woods, a fundraiser for a children's hospital. She won the bidding for $40,000, which she gave to Merhab for Father's Day.

Why so cheap? Merhab figures there were two reasons. The auction ended on Mother's Day, when many would-be bidders had other obligations, Merhab says. Woods also had had a dry spell. However, before he played the round in August, Woods had won his third British Open. He was back in the news, and the crowds were vast.

Adrenaline Overload

CEOs may be used to pressure, but when they golf, those watching are "normally your wife and somebody else," Lawless says. When you play with Woods? "There are 10,000 lining the first tee."

That creates the fear of pulling a "Gerald Ford," an errant drive into the crowd and named for the former president. Craig Miller, CEO of Ruth's Chris Steak House, played with Woods in a pro-am at the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte in 2005, two weeks after Woods had won the Masters for the fourth time. Miller says one of his tee shots wiped out the left side of the gallery but he recovered nicely.

"Adrenaline was going through my body at 200 miles an hour," says Murphy, whose knees were shaking on the first tee. On the par-3 third hole, he landed 10 yards over the green using the same 8-iron that put him 4 feet short of the pin during his practice round.

Nerves momentarily got the best of Noddle, who says he must have teed his ball up a little ahead of the markers on the first hole. Woods got the crowd laughing when he came in and moved the markers up to make Noddle legal.

CEOs say they are in awe of Woods, and not just because he is the best. They like that he prefers tee times at daybreak and that he takes his golf regimen to other hobbies. Woods is into free diving and can hold his breath for minutes at a time while plunging up to 100 feet.

In interviews, Woods has said he wakes up every day knowing he can be a better husband, father and person, as well as a better golfer. That's a mantra that strikes a chord with high achievers.

"He has the discipline around what matters," Novak says.